Racial Capitalism: Economy, Culture, and Racialization
“Racial capitalism” is a concept that has become central to contemporary radical movements, from Black Lives Matter and the prison abolition movement to movements for climate justice. It was first developed by Cedric Robinson in his monumental Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, where he argues that “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions.” Some authors prefer to speak of “race and capitalism” instead, with reservations to Robinson’s formulation, while others prefer the label “racialized capitalism.” All three frameworks consider the relationship between race and the capitalist social order, but each understands such a relationship differently. A key question is whether structural racism is internal or constitutive of a capitalist social order, or if racism and capitalism represent two systems of domination that, while tightly conjoined, still have their own internal logics (e.g., sets of privileges, exclusions, and modes of violence). The answer has crucial implications for political alliances, movement tactics, and strategies to achieve meaningful social change.
In this course, we’ll assess how processes of racialization in the U.S. shaped capitalist society and economy and how capitalism, in turn, has simultaneously shaped processes of racialization. We’ll consider the relationship between racial and economic inequality since the late 19th century; the role of the state; and how the relationship between various racial and ethnic groups, the economy, and civil society changed over time. Throughout, we will ask: What theory of race and capitalism best fits, and can best explain, the empirical reality of 21st-century U.S. society? How should we understand the changes in the relationship between race and capitalism? What are the ties between the global origins of racial hierarchy and economic exploitation and its national manifestations? In what ways does a discussion about race and capitalist social order illuminate the tensions between class and identity? What are the particularities of race and capitalist social order in the neoliberal era? How can the notion of racial capitalism (and others like it) help frame the contemporary joint crises of capitalism and liberal democracy in the West? We’ll read from the work of Cedric Robinson, Robin D.G. Kelley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ruth W. Gilmore, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Peter James Hudson, Michael Dawson, Nikil Pal Singh, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Eric Williams, and others.
This course is fully online and will run on Tuesdays, April 11th-May 2nd, from 6:30-9:30pm ET, with a short break (5 to 10 minutes). The reading load is approximately 100 pages per week and should be completed prior to each meeting. There are no grades or assignments. Overall, in and out of class, students dedicate 8-10 hours of their week to a BISR course.
The course is open to students from all educational backgrounds and follows the seminar format—i.e., the instructor directs the discussion, but the meetings are a collaborative effort, guided largely by students’ interests, questions, and reactions. Classes are exclusive to Forge Writing Workshop graduates and will be a space for intentional reflection on the ways activists can leverage scholarship for movement building, strategic decisions, community engagement, skill-sharing, culture-shifting, and the making of counter-narratives.